Where Imagination Outshines Memorization

Losing Our Senses

When the actor Tony Danza was asked about his view of parenting, he replied:

Hold back the tide. Keep your kids innocent as long
as possible. It’s like a dike and you’ve got your fingers
and toes in the holes, holding back an unending flood of
inappropriate information.

Danza’s concern for his two young daughters echoes the sentiments of many parents today. We need to protect our children physically in an increasingly violent world. But we need to protect them emotionally and psychologically also – from the danger of growing up too soon. We need to shield them from developmentally inappropriate materials, from adult language, sexuality, fashion, and the media.  Our children are in danger of prematurely losing their childhood. But, there is another, perhaps greater danger. Our children are at risk of losing their very sense of perception.

The Rational Psychology Association (Gesellschaft fur Rationaelle Psychologie or GRP) in Munich, Germany, has been conducting research for several decades on the processing of stimuli in the brain and the emotions. Some four thousand subjects are involved in the study. About twenty years ago researchers began to note a striking phenomenon: the receptivity of the senses of smell and taste was deteriorating significantly.  According to psychologist Henner Ertel:

The brain had set a new sensation threshold, so to speak, and
refused to recognize sensations below this new limit, sensations
that would have been unconditionally accepted before.

This seeming trend was not yet considered remarkable until the 1980’s when deterioration in the other senses began to be evident. Ertel reported with concern:

Suddenly all of the senses were impaired. The brain refused
to take any action on a significant proportion of the stimuli.
it was getting more and more difficult to stimulate the
corresponding centers in the cerebral cortex:

Still the research team at GRP was not alarmed. Apparently the brain was in a process of transformation. In order to react, it now needed a barrage of stimuli which, prior to 1949, would have put an individual into shock. The brain was no doubt trying to adapt to the pace, stress and intensity of the technological age.

This trend, however, has continued to accelerate. What finally alarmed the GRP team was the realization that the brain’s sensitivity to stimuli is decreasing now at a rate of one percent a year. Subtle and delicate sensations are simply filtered out. Instead only the “brutal thrills,” as the especially strong stimuli are termed, elicit any response.

One series of studies shows that optical information is being processed by this “new brain” without being evaluated. When a group of adults were shown the so called “Flesher videos,” in which people are dismembered or mutilated, their experience was one of disgust and revulsion. Most of the subjects walked out on the film. Younger people, however, shown the same video, watched without emotion and were concerned only whether the plot was exciting or not.

Other GRP studies indicate that the ability to distinguish sounds is also declining. Sixteen years ago the average German could distinguish 300,000 sounds, while today that number is only 180,000. For many children the level is only 100,000. This is enough for rap or pop music, but not for classical music, which includes many more subtle sounds. This decline in auditory sensitivity may be a major reason for the declining interest in classical music.

The sense of smell is also deteriorating and may account for changing olfactory preferences. In rural Germany, marriage proposals were often made beneath fragrant blossoming chestnut trees. Today most young people consider the fragrance repulsive.

Accompanying this decrease in sensitivity to sensory stimuli is a lessening of the pleasure derived from daily, mundane experiences. In 1971, GRP researchers began to study the enjoyment that people experienced with certain foods. They prepared a package of basic foodstuffs – bread, fish, grapefruit, coffee and so on – and asked subjects to rate the enjoyment value of each item. Repeated at five-year intervals, this ongoing study has shown that the enjoyment ratings have moved steadily downward. Researchers note that with women the drop was not as great as with men and that those under the age of forty showed more of a decrease than those over forty. The only products that now give more pleasure than before are beer and mineral waters. The general trend, though, is that the threshold of sensation and pleasure has risen. Nothing seems to taste as good as it used to.

The researchers at GRP now feel that over the past twenty-five years the brain of the average individual has undergone significant changes in its organization. The decrease in sensitivity to sensory stimuli implies that stimuli are being processed in a different way than before. Researchers hypothesize that there are fewer cross linkage or networks in the brain; therefore primarily optical stimuli go directly to the optical center without activating other sensory or emotional centers. Thus human beings can take in very powerful stimuli that are discordant, senseless, or contradictory without being bothered. The trend researcher Gert Gerken has labeled this phenomenon “the new indifference.” Drug rehabilitation researcher, Felicitas Vogt, emphasizing the higher threshold needed to gain satisfaction, has coined the term “turbo-brain.” The researchers at GRP use the more conservative term “the new brain.”

One may of course respond to this phenomenon with the query: So what? The brain now has reset the level at which it reacts. This probably has happened in history at other times when great changes were taking place. Is not this just the brain’s way of adapting to the realities of a new world, to our modern way of life? Our world today is full of powerful and exciting stimuli, and to deal with these we have lost sensitivity to impressions at the subtle end of the spectrum. Is this necessarily bad?

Obviously, we have changed. The speed and intensity of our time have dulled the sensitivity of every person. Children and young people have been particularly affected. Loud music, violent movies, fast computer games, shrill colors, powerful drugs are reducing our sensitivity to stimuli, so that louder music, faster and more engrossing computer games, shriller colors, more powerful drugs – legal and illegal – are necessary to grab and hold our attention, to interest, and to stimulate us. Without this hyper stimulation we are in danger of not feeling anything at all.

The world we live in is a complex and subtle one. It cannot be grasped fully by words, numbers, or reason. We can begin to truly comprehend it only through capacities of the soul that involve calm, sensitivity, and refinement. Traditionally these capacities were schooled through observation of and contact with the subtle beauties of the natural world and through the practice of the arts. Once the most treasured of human capacities, these are now being subverted and destroyed. The new brain begins to lose connection with this entire realm. Incapable of responding to subtle stimuli, it must be thrilled. Gentleness, calm, sensitivity – these are attributes that do not apply to the new brain.

Boredom and depression increase. Because the “little things in life” no longer delight, and because delicate and soft perceptions and feelings are less possible (leaving only sentimentality), the perceived world becomes ever more empty, ever less able to stimulate interest. The world must always be more radically and more artificially enhanced in order to provide enjoyment. Ertel estimates that the new brain will completely establish itself in the West by the first half of the next century.  This new brain has dangerous implications for the near and distant future.

What can we do to stop and perhaps reverse this disturbing trend? What can we do to protect and regain our own and our child’s sensitivity to the world?

Today many techniques to develop “mindfulness,” as well as many meditation practices based in the various religious traditions, are available. These can be a great help to adults in “keeping their senses.” While the new brain will make it even more difficult to sit and practice such exercises, the variety of techniques, teachers, and aids (tapes, drumming, and so on) makes it possible for virtually everyone to find something that is appropriate and helpful.

The solution for our children needs to take another form, as true meditation is not possible until adulthood. Here are some things you can do for your children – and yourself.

  1. Unplug. Keep your child’s life free of television, videos, computer games, and movies until at least the age of ten, and then be very careful about what and how much they experience. For most families this is an exceedingly radial recommendation, because we are addicted to the media. The oft-heard justification that there are many educational programs on television and that computers can foster learning is something like the alcoholic citing the nutritional aspects of beer. Content is only a small part of the problem with electronic media. For young adults, exploration of the possibilities of media and computers my be desirable, but in the formative years when the brain is developing it is anathema. Recent research clearly shows that a child exposed to such media fails to develop neurologically in a normal and healthy way. There are many good books on this issue, for example, Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television and Jane Healy’s Endangered Minds: Why Our Children Can’t Think and What We Can Do About It.
  2. Slow down your lifestyle and give family life the time it needs and deserves. The concept of “quality time” has been largely discredited. It is now increasingly clear that in family life “quantity time” is crucial. We need to spend more time with our children in a regular, consistent, unhurried way. We need to sit down to dinner as a family every day (and to linger at the table), spend time in the evenings relaxing and doing things together, go out on weekend family outings, and so on. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book Mindful Parenting includes helpful ideas in this direction.
  3. Give your child many and regular experiences of nature.  Find a place for nature in your family life. This means frequent and regular activities in the outdoors for you and your child. Take your infant out in the baby carriage for walks; play outdoors with your toddler, rain or shine; and go hiking, canoeing, and camping with your older child. Bring nature into the home with a seasonal festival table like the one found in the Waldorf classroom, on which are placed things from nature that reflect the special quality of the season. Use bouquets of flowers, twigs, and grasses to decorate your home. Grow an indoor and/or an outdoor garden. Get a pet.
  4. Bring in the arts into your home, and do so without the aid of electronics. Every Waldorf first-grader learns to play the recorder, but parents – even those without musical experience – can also learn to play this lovely instrument. The informal family concerts that can then take place will provide memories cherished for life. Sing every day, ideally without radio or taped accompaniment. Paint, draw, and do beeswax or clay modeling with your child. Take art, dance, or even eurythmy classes yourself. Hang artwork on your walls; take the family to classical and other acoustic concerts, dance performances, and museums.

– Thomas Poplawski

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